March 16, 2010

Case against motorcycle club weak, defense says


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Old Orchard Beach tax assessor: Federal prosecutors want this house, at 94 Ross Road in Old Orchard Beach, turned over to the government. The owner, Richard W. Szpyt, was one of 19 people indicted this month on federal drug trafficking charges. Authorities say Szpyt is a member of the Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club, and his property is used as a clubhouse for the group.

Staff Writer

An alleged ringleader of a drug trafficking operation can't read or write, and could not possibly be the criminal mastermind described by federal prosecutors, according to the lawyer representing the president of the Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club in Maine.

Richard Szpyt has been held without bail since he and 18 other defendants were indicted by a federal grand jury in March.

Investigators say Szpyt was trafficking large amounts of cocaine and marijuana between his hometown of Haverhill, Mass., and a property he owns in Old Orchard Beach that serves as a gathering spot for members of the Iron Horsemen.

The case represents one of the biggest drug busts involving a motorcycle group in Maine. Details about the investigation, such as the amounts of cocaine allegedly involved and financial aspects of the operation, have not been released publicly, however.

Szpyt and some of the co-defendants face minimum sentences of 10 years if they are convicted. If the case goes to trial, it would likely take place this winter, after several pending motions are resolved.

Barry Wilson, a Boston-based lawyer, filed a motion last month seeking a new bail hearing for Szpyt, who goes by the name ''Zip'' in the motorcycle club. Wilson had not yet been hired to represent Szpyt at his first bail hearing on May 1. Based on that hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Rich ordered Szpyt be held without bail.

''The defendant is the president of the Maine chapter of the Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club, the record owner of the Old Orchard Beach clubhouse property where contraband and weapons were located, and the alleged supplier -- in kilogram quantities -- of cocaine,'' Rich wrote in his order of detention. ''Tellingly, he is referred to by several co-defendants in wiretapped telephone conversations as 'boss'.''

Wilson claims that the government's evidence against Szpyt is weak, and that his client should be released on bail until the case is resolved.

''Much of the government's discovery attempts to portray Mr. Szpyt as the leader of the alleged drug conspiracy,'' Wilson wrote in his motion. ''When in fact the documents at best suggest simply that Mr. Szpyt is the leader of the Iron Horsemen Motorcycle Club, and nothing more.''

According to the indictment, cocaine deals made during telephone calls were recorded by federal investigators. Wilson said those calls were simply about Szpyt's motorcycle business in Haverhill and the activities of the motorcycle club. Wilson also said the government found no physical evidence, such as ledger sheets, baggies or scales, that tie Szpyt to drugs.

''At best the discovery shows that some of the parties indicted are involved in small time drug dealing, there appears to be no evidence of a mammoth drug conspiracy allegedly involving up to ten kilograms of cocaine a week,'' Wilson wrote.

''The absurdity of these allegations becomes laughable when the mastermind is allegedly a person who cannot read or write, having left school at sixth grade.''

The lead government lawyer, Daniel Perry, an assistant U.S. attorney based in Portland, said he is prohibited from discussing details of the investigation.

Perry filed his response to Wilson's motion on Tuesday. The government lawyer says Szpyt should not get a new hearing, because no new information has surfaced since the original one. Perry also said the government has more evidence against Szpyt that has not yet been provided to Wilson. Many of the defendants in the case are members or supporters of the Iron Horsemen, which has chapters nationwide, with concentrated pockets in Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. The club -- along with others including Hells Angels, Saracens and Bandidos -- are classified as ''outlaw motorcycle gangs'' by law enforcement agencies, because they use distinct colors and insignias and organizational structures, and members have used violence in disputes about territory.

Biker gang violence escalated in Portland's Old Port earlier this decade, but has died down since 2004, largely because the Iron Horsemen reached a truce with the Outlaws, said Portland police Sgt. Bob Martin, who tracks such activity.

Current and former members of the Iron Horsemen in Maine, however, say the club is unfairly targeted. Most members have legitimate jobs and families, and while some members might be involved in illegal drugs, that activity is not systematic, the members say.

Lawyers for other defendants were active in July, filing several motions on behalf of their clients. David Beneman, the federal public defender, has asked the court to suppress the recorded telephone conversations.

Beneman, who represents James Weston of Old Orchard Beach, said government agents are required to use other investigative techniques before applying for wiretapping warrants, but that process was not followed in the Iron Horsemen investigation. Beneman said the wiretaps should never have been approved by two federal judges in the summer of 2007.

''Resorting to use of electronic intercepts is a far more intrusive, more invasive approach that should be reserved for the situation that cannot be pursued using less extreme measures,'' Beneman wrote. ''Here, the government overstepped the bounds of what is necessary.''

Lawyers for at least 11 other defendants have joined Beneman on that motion. The deadline for Perry to respond to the motion is Aug. 7.

Staff writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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